Back in 2002 on a sofa somewhere in North London, the concept of a new label was being brewed in the mind of a young DJ named Kasra, a hazy vision that became a reality after an intoxicated conversation with some colleagues.
“I was working at a record label,” recalls Kasra, “and a few of the people I worked with talked me into starting my own label over a few drinks one night. That said, I had already been thinking about it and had already been involved in my own label, releasing tapes of underground guitar music from the age of 15.
I had fallen in love with drum & bass,” he reminisces, “and wanted to be involved in the music in some way. I was DJing a bit, and due to the internet, was being sent a lot of fresh music by new producers. I really felt compelled to try and get some of this music out and be part of the scene.
Drum & bass, like all good underground music, has a real sense of DIY, and I had come from essentially a punk background. Setting up a label seemed like the best way to incorporate all this spirit and [these] ideals into one.”
ONE STEP AHEAD
Since its conception, Critical has seen releases from the scene-leading, future-facing likes of Calibre, Breakage, Spectrasoul, Icicle, Break, Rockwell, S.P.Y, Alix Perez, Noisia, Dub Phizix and more. The versatility, artistic vision and sheer talent of the producers involved set the precedent for the standard of Kasra’s output. Critical has always endeavored to push musical boundaries, and if you’ve never heard a Critical track, it’s clear from the list of artists the imprint stays at least one step ahead.
And after 10 long years, Kasra sure has something to show for it. Critical has gained a reputation for putting out the freshest drum & bass, and never shying away from new sounds.
“The success of the label is down to the consistency of the output and overall vibe of the music they release,” comments Xtrah, “and by having great producers release quality music on it.”
Kasra thinks his label has survived due to a very simple formula. “Same as any label — sign music you love, be smart with how you market and present the music, and look after your artists.”
Although after numerous releases, including beautifully finished compilation albums, copious nights up and down the UK, plentiful events across Europe and legions of fans, like so many others, it’s working with the legendary Fabric that fills Kasra with pride. “Our Fabric residency and my 'Fabric Live' mix CD [in 2012] are things that make me very proud of what we have done with the label.”
The label boss is also incredibly proud of his exclusively signed artists, who he supports and nurtures as well as offering them the advice of a decade’s worth of experience in the industry. “Enei’s development into one of the most exciting and vital producers around is one of our biggest accomplishments. I’m all about looking forward, too. I can’t wait to unleash Mefjus on the scene as well as Emperor and Foreign Concept. They make exciting music and are great people to work with. It’s as important for me that we have a great working relationship as the music, it’s a team effort.”
It seems the producers enjoy working with Critical just as much, as Foreign Concept explains what makes the label such a joy to work with.
“Musically, [it's] the freedom to write any style of track to be potentially released, or to play any style at their events. I also enjoy the professionalism, and the advice given that has almost single-handedly given me a chance of making a living from music.”
Clichéd as it sounds, Critical’s success boils down to sheer hard work and dedication.
Artists that have worked with Kasra talk of his respect, dedication and professionalism not only to the artists themselves, but also to drum & bass. Deeply rooted in Critical’s foundation is this utter appreciation for good music. Kasra prides himself on releasing what he considers the cream of d&b.
“It’s quite narcissistic and possibly even selfish, but if I don’t like it I won’t release it. People seem to like my taste,” Kasra hesitates. “Well, sometimes!” And Foreign Concept agrees that music is core to Critical’s achievements and authenticity.
“A lot of other labels have been spearheaded by a big name DJ whose profile has helped boost their respective imprint,” he begins. “Kasra has become a respected DJ from the success of his label. I think this is testimony to the quality of the tracks released, and shows that Critical is first and foremost about the music, and not the figurehead DJ. I also think they have progressed as a label whilst keeping true to their musical identity, unlike others, who I believe have alienated their core fan base, in the pursuit of a similar progression."
"Critical’s about consistent quality music, a strong brand identity and looking after their artists both financially and in respect of their reputation. I also think they have always pro-actively looked for the next sound, and have not been scared to push it.”
THE NEXT SOUND
The Critical sound is very distinct, yet hard to precisely put your finger on. “Futuristic, progressive, brooding, yet soulful drum & bass,” reckons Foreign Concept. Xtrah describes the sound as “well-produced, current-sounding underground music.” But boss man Kasra finds it harder to diagnose.
“People tell me the label has a sound, but we release a wide variety of sub genres within drum & bass, so it’s hard for me to pin down,” evaluates Kasra. “Ultimately, it’s just what I’m feeling, if I had to mark it down as a particular sound, I’d say it encapsulates all the excitement, energy and expression that makes underground drum & bass great.”
Perhaps this particular sound is so hard to place because it draws inspiration from across pastures far and wide. With Enei sent from Russia with love, Mefjus hailing from Austria, and Critical events regularly residing across Europe, Kasra most certainly draws influences from across UK borders.
“A lot of my first gigs were in Europe, so for me, drum & bass is synonymous with European club culture. Over recent years the scene has definitely opened up a lot more. Some of the biggest producers around are from outside the UK. With regard to our sound, there is strong support for underground drum & bass across Europe, I think people really enjoy the label's versatility.”
Although clearly in the forefront of everything Critical represents, its prosperity isn’t just about the music.
The label has become well-known for regularly putting on intimate, forward-thinking events in towns and cities in all corners of the country. The vibes are deep, dark and futuristic, and the crowd will generally spend the night being treated to new tracks that they probably would never have heard.
“The parties are great,” says Xtrah. “I love being able to draw for the deepest of tunes that no one has heard, and no one strokes their beard, they just go sick and enjoy the music.”
Sensing a correlation between the growth of his label and the amount of parties hosted under the Critical banner, Kasra adds “As the label has grown, so have the events, so the two do definitely go hand-in-hand. Also, it’s great to be able to offer the label artists regular work playing good parties across the UK, Europe and beyond. T
he live shows certainly help build the perception of the label, there are a lot of people who don’t buy records but who do go out to clubs to enjoy the music. We are lucky to work with a great group of promoters, but if I had to pick my favourite, I’d say Fabric. It’s an honour to have our London home there and in terms of crowd, vibe, soundsystem and the way the label is represented, you couldn’t ask for more.”
In honour of this landmark year, Kasra will be releasing a celebratory anniversary album, 'Critical X'. It’s a nostalgic backtrack of the journey that Kasra has trodden with his label. But the album also looks to the future, and shows the direction Critical is heading. “I’ve chosen my favourite tracks from each of the past 10 years, and included some brand-new material and remixes,” remarks Kasra. “I wanted to give people a snapshot of where we have been and where we are going.”
THE CRUCIAL CUTS
Five essential Critical tunes
1. Sabre 'A Wandering Journal'
A ground-breaking concept album unlike anything the drum & bass scene had ever heard, complete with a photographic journal to accompany the journey through the tracks.
2. Enei 'Machines'
Debut album from the Russian producer. The deep, techy, glitchy sound we've come to expect from Critical, with a fresh new skool twist.
When an artist as esteemed as Calibre releases on your label, people take note. This was a pivotal moment for Critical.
4 Spectrasoul 'Alibi/Dark Hour'
Stunning and haunting — one of the best-loved tracks from the boys.
5. Dphie 'Five Faces/Evolve 2'
The first track ever released by Critical, setting the standard for the next decade of future music.
WORDS: WHISKEY KICKS